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‘Almost like waking up again’: Harper College students embrace Social Justice Studies Distinction

Ada Velazquez, Harper's first Social Justice Studies Distinction graduate, stands outside the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg.

Ada Velazquez was the first Harper student to complete the Social Justice Studies Distinction. A Mexican American with indigenous roots, she is completing a capstone project working with the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg.

When Assistant Professor Michael Bentley was a student – first in high school, then at Harper College and Northwestern University – he felt like something was missing from his education.

“I loved learning, and I loved going to school,” he recalled, “but I was learning how to fit into the world instead of how to reshape the world.”

Bentley is now an assistant professor and co-chair of humanities and the first coordinator of the Harper College Social Justice Studies Distinction, a program for students who want to pursue an education that prepares them to succeed while applying knowledge to help improve the world around them.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for students at Harper to begin to think about how they can leverage their academic experience toward serving the community and addressing problems,” he explained. “And I wanted them to get that opportunity in their first years of college as opposed to waiting for graduate school.”


A well-rounded, eye-opening education

Ada Velazquez, who graduated in May, was the first student to complete the Social Justice Studies (SJS) Distinction. A Mexican American with indigenous roots, she is completing a capstone project working with the Trickster Cultural Center in Schaumburg.

“It’s a cultural arts center where they host meetings and events and teach Native American heritage to kids, adults, anyone. It doesn’t matter where you come from,” she said. “I felt a real connection.”

Velazquez said the SJS Distinction taught her about history she didn’t learn in high school, without sacrificing her core studies. Her SJS capstone project leverages her volunteer work at the Trickster Center toward an analysis of the loss of Native American heritage and its effects on mental health.

“I could take the courses I needed to complete while still learning about social justice,” she said. “Through the distinction, you get your eyes opened and you become more aware of your surroundings. It’s almost like waking up again. I’m proud to be an Indigenous woman, and I want to continue learning more.”

Harper sophomore Jessica Unger is just beginning her SJS Distinction path and is already enjoying the benefits.

“Being involved makes my whole school experience much more well-rounded,” she said. “It’s about becoming empowered to enact change on an in-depth, academically sound level. It’s about learning from cultures, not about cultures, and learning how to use my privilege in productive ways to make a difference.”


A distinction designed with equity in mind

The Social Justice Studies Distinction at Harper offers an inspiring and empowering experience for students seeking a more just and sustainable future. The courses required to earn the distinction either fulfill traditional degree requirements and/or are eligible for transfer credits.

“Typically, these programs are only available to students who have time to do extracurricular work,” Bentley said. “We really wanted to make it possible for the program to fit with what students are already doing, and part of the reason for that is equity.”

Many Harper students plan to transfer to another institution, and not everyone wants the full SJS experience. That’s why the program is designed with three paths: Exploration, Transfer Distinction and Graduate Distinction.

The Exploration Path allows students to delve into social justice curriculum in select subjects or with specific professors. By enrolling in specialized SJS course sections, students engage in meaningful dialogue about social justice, explore their identities and build relationships with like-minded peers. “So, if you want to take one or two classes or if there’s a professor you’re interested in studying with, we want to provide you the opportunity,” Bentley said.

The Transfer Distinction is ideal for those planning to transfer before earning an associate degree. While students will not earn the full distinction, they will receive a letter of recommendation from SJS faculty and help in finding social justice-oriented transfer programs. Students must complete the required 11-12 credit hours of coursework and submit a capstone project proposal.“Every social justice class shows up on your transcript, and we’ll help you find a career path with a social justice focus,” Bentley said. “That’s because we want you to have an opportunity to engage with this program.”

The Graduate Distinction is for students seeking the full SJS experience. Upon completion of all requirements, including the 11-12 credit hours of coursework and a capstone project, they earn a special distinction on their transcript and diploma, along with recognition at Harper’s Commencement Ceremony.

All students are encouraged to take Social Justice Studies courses, and those who pursue the SJS Distinction gain closer collaboration with socially engaged faculty, interdisciplinary approaches, and valuable career and scholarship opportunities.


Learning to create change

This distinction empowers students to become active participants in their communities, campuses and workplaces. Students become catalysts for change, equipped with the knowledge, skills and passion to create a more compassionate, equitable and inclusive society.

“Collectively, at Harper College we strive to serve the diverse needs of our community. We are especially excited that our students are also passionate about advocacy and learning to fight against injustice,” said Dr. Tamara A. Johnson, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion. “Harper’s Social Justice Studies courses afford students the unique opportunity to integrate their passion for social justice into their academic curriculum.”

Bentley noted that the Social Justice Studies Distinction is not affiliated with any political party or ideology. “As long as you’re concerned with the world being an equitable and inclusive place for everyone,” he said, “this is a program for you.”

To learn more about the program, contact SJS coordinator Michael Bentley at socialjustice@harpercollege.edu or 847.925.6271.

Last Updated: 6/3/24